The Science Behind the Silver Screen

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Dr. Doug Roble gives the plenary talk on the science behind visual effects and filmmaking at the Science Day program during the 2015 National Science Bowl competition.Photo courtesy of National Science Bowl

Doug Roble gives the plenary talk on the science behind visual effects and filmmaking at the Science Day program during the 2015 National Science Bowl competition, May 1,2015, in Washington, DC.

It takes a lot to impress a teenager – it takes even more to impress one in the morning.

Doug Roble kept his audience of 300 high schoolers enthralled as he described computer-generated visual effects for the movies in his presentation, "The Science of Creating Fake Life for the Movies," at the morning plenary session of the Department of Energy's (DOE) 2015 National Science Bowl®.

He drew back the curtain on the magic of visual effects, sharing photos and video clips from the feature films, "Maleficent" and "Tron," and explained the months of work to transform an actor's performance with special effects created by Roble's teams of programmers and visual-effects artists.

Roble writes the software programs to create tools to simulate reality on the big screen. He completed his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science. "In electrical engineering classes, there is a lot of math: algebra, calculus, linear algebra, and applied math," said Roble. "As it turns out, when you start simulating physical reality, you need all the math you can possibly learn." He then attended Ohio State University and earned his Ph.D. in computer science. A new company, Digital Domain, hired him and Roble has worked there ever since.

For a typical job, the movie production team will take the script, determine what visual-effects are needed - what is the effect, how many shots - and make a list of say, 500 shots out of a typical 2000- to 2500-shot movie. Visual-effects companies bid on the job; the company that has the technology, the capabilities, and a decent price wins. "Our software team has two tasks: 1) we have to figure out the specific effects for this movie," said Roble, "and 2) we have to think about technology solutions for new effects – even when we don't have a project - so we can attract more work. Movie makers want us to come up with effects that no one else has done before."

"We are trying to simulate reality so we can do cool things with it – simulate fluids, gas, fire. We can blow-up buildings; we can construct buildings. We can replace people to do stunts," said Roble. "If a movie needs a character with wings, we need to figure out how to model feathers. There is an artistic side, but there is also the physical nature of how feathers behave. And if you don't model the feathers accurately, it won't look good." Roble's work does look good; he has been honored with two awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: a certificate for Technical Achievement for his computer program, "TRACK," and a plaque for Scientific and Technical Achievement for "FSIM," a fluid simulator program used in the film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End."

Roble said coming to the National Science Bowl competition was a fun way to meet his audiences. "My day-to-day work is sitting in front of a computer, typing code, thinking about math, and working with the artists," he said. "But to interact with the people who see the movie, I have to go to the theatre and listen to their reaction. Here [at NSB] I get to talk to people who really enjoy the visual effects."

"I really enjoy what I do and I like telling people about it. The National Science Bowl® has the cream of the crop – the best students in the country. Showing them what I can do is a blast; it is fun and perhaps they will think about visual effects careers." 



Note: Doug Roble has shared his contact information and students who wish to correspond can obtain his email address through their NSB coaches.

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Sandra Allen McLean is a communications associate in the Office of Science,